Time is not on your side

Real time movies like Nick of Time are the clever antithesis of real cinema

Nick of Time begins with the type of set-up that should be the makings of high drama: The young daughter of drab businessman Gene Watson (Johnny Depp) is kidnaped, and will be killed unless he assassinates the governor (Marsha Mason). The difference from any other movie is that this one plays out in real time--the length it takes to watch the movie is the same it takes for the events to unfold in it. As used here, though, the device is little more than a cheap gimmick, and a burdensome one, at that.

Real time is a rarely used device in film, and Nick of Time falls victim to virtually every pothole the format posits, not the smallest of which is: How does the film keep 90 continuous minutes of a man's life interesting, even when he is subject to the most dire situations? The answer is: It doesn't. The film is set almost entirely within the confines of the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel, and before the film is half over, it's apparent that the activities available at the hotel are as dull as shampoo instructions: Get a shoe shine, have a drink at the bar, ride the elevator, repeat. If director John Badham and screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan weren't so wedded to the real time concept, they might have found something interesting for our hero to do. (As it is, about the only real excitement takes place during a dream sequence).

The essential dilemma with most real time films is that, despite any sense of tension that might be created, the gimmick is fundamentally anti-cinematic, and only undermines artistic integrity. Although it can add a sense of urgency to a situation, at its heart, real time is a lazy screenwriter's device. Under the construct, one of the three essential elements of cinema--time, space, and action--is removed. Time is no longer a creative element used by the director to serve the film; rather, it becomes the raison d'etre. The creative process is set on its head: the director no longer creates the reality, but succumbs to it. A ticking clock becomes an artificial surrogate for common sense, and the flow of plot is relegated to maintaining the integrity of the gimmick.

Nowhere are these crimes more in evidence than in Nick of Time. While Gene's daughter is held at gunpoint in a van (by Roma Maffia), a seedy politico named Smitty (Christopher Walker) shadows Gene, making sure he carries through with the murder. The problems in the situation are clear without even seeing the movie: If Smitty is so close to the action, why doesn't he kill the governor himself? In fact, the conspiracy against the governor is so pervasive (Depp's character is about the only one not in on it), the film seems contrived beyond all reason. The script's obsession with real time, leading to endlessly repetitive busywork just to fill time, merely emphasizes these contrivances. You don't watch Nick of Time, you clock it.

Manipulating time is both common and necessary to all filmmaking. In The Black Stallion, for instance, the title character is the fastest-running horse ever. The film culminates in an exciting mile-and-a-quarter race, as the camera cuts frantically to the jockey, to the horses' legs galloping at breakneck speeds, to the spectators staring in bated anticipation. It is full of drama and tension and energy--and it's four-and-a-half minutes long, two minutes longer than the slowest racehorse in history. Yet the audience accepts that this isn't really the fastest race they've ever seen; they willingly suspend their disbelief. The length, a necessary result of the montage, enhances the feeling of immediacy even as it undercuts time in the real world.

The effect can also be used in reverse. In Alien, Lieutenant Ripley sets the spaceship on a 10-minute self-destruct protocol, but the ship explodes only eight minutes later; director Ridley Scott chooses to shorten the time frame to create the same tension that The Black Stallion achieves by lengthening it. That is the essential character of film: the ability to forge a new world by creative decision-making without regard to real time.

Perhaps the worst thing about real time movies is not that they take place in real time, but that they call attention to that from the outset. Nick of Time continually cuts to a digital clock to remind us just how much--or how little--time has actually passed. All this accomplishes is to make the film seem interminably long. You're meant to marvel that the director was able to do what he set out to do. Instead, you'll wonder why Nick of Time isn't more entertaining on its own merits.

No one seems immune to this particular gimmickry. Alfred Hitchcock made one of his worst pictures when he gave in to the temptation in Rope. Directed by anyone else, Rope would probably have been insufferable, rather than only occasionally interesting. The movie begins with a brutal murder, with the body dumped in a chest moments before guests arrive for dinner. The idea posed by the movie was whether the killers could get away with such a bold and daringly anti-social act merely because they believe themselves to be supermen. Ironically, this is the same issue raised by the film itself--can a visualist like Hitchcock make a film of such anti-cinematic qualities work, merely because he is Hitchcock? (Unfortunately, he couldn't.)

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